The annual scholarship fundraiser for the (HHNE) this year was termed “HHNE’S Big Bang Event.” So the event, held on June 21 at in West Hartford, promised to be one of “galactic magnitude,” according to master of ceremonies and school board member David Rosen.
It lived up to its promotion, beginning with a galaxy of tasty food from Catering by Shuman. The event honored the Zachs family of West Hartford for their charitable giving and commitment to the co-educational Modern Orthodox Jewish high school.
Headlining entertainment for the evening was the featured speaker Mayim Bialik, who stars in the CBS-TV hit series “The Big Bang Theory.”
Bialik, 37, may be a well-known Hollywood actor, but she doesn’t look the part. She dresses modestly, in keeping with her modern Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
She wore a long peasant-style dress with a light white sweater, plain gold hoop earrings and minimal makeup. She is much thinner in person than on TV. Donors who mingled with her at a private reception were impressed with her friendly, low-key manner, as she sat quietly at a table chatting with guests and nibbling on a kosher vegan meal, and jumping up every few minutes to patiently pose for pictures.
In a warm and witty talk before the 430 people who came to support the regional private high school, Bialik spoke about her childhood growing up with “bohemian” parents in Los Angeles. They named her for her great-grandmother Mariam, who was called Mayim, which means “water” in Hebrew.
She started acting at age 11, got a role at age 13 playing a young Bette Midler in the 1989 film, “Beaches” which led to a starring role in the TV sitcom “Blossom” from 1990-1994.
Bialik decided to become a scientist and earned a B.S. and Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA (she also minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies). Her academic interest was inspired by a biology teacher who tutored her on the set. “Technically speaking,” joked emcee Rosen, “she’s the only one qualified to be on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” a hilarious sitcom about a group of nerdy scientists.
Marriage and motherhood put the brakes on her life as a scientist, as she chose to be a stay-at-home mother to her two young sons. Jumping into that role with an intensity she brings to everything she does, Bialik is a certified lactation educator counselor and spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network.
As a devotee of “attachment parenting,” she has written a book, “Beyond the Sling.” She also blogs regularly about Jewish parenting at www.kveller.com.
Several questions from the audience were about her parenting views, which include a belief in extended breast-feeding and co-sleeping (children spending the night in the same bed as their parents).
The soft-spoken Bialik told the crowd this style of parenting is “not some new fad” but an old, traditional style of parenting. Quoting anthropologist Margaret Mead, Bialik said women’s bodies biologically are “designed to birth and nourish this way.”
Her husband now stays home with their sons, who are home-schooled (she has taught science to their home-school community in addition to piano). Bialik is an avid vegan cook and, unlike many Hollywood stars, she doesn’t have a nanny.
Most of her remarks were focused on her “Jewish journey” and how she balances her life as a religious Jewish person and a Hollywood actor. Scheduling is a “tremendous source of conflict,” she said, noting that trying to balance the Jewish calendar with a TV schedule is a huge challenge.
The other conflict is one of fashion and public appearances. Bialik does not wear pants and wears dresses that fall to the knees. “Nothing strapless, sleeveless and nothing that makes unnatural cleavage,” she said in a remark that drew much laughter from the audience. She recalled it was quite a challenge to find a modest yet trendy dress to wear to the Emmy Awards last summer.
“The Big Bang Theory” introduced Bialik’s character Amy Farrah Fowler at the end of Season 3. She plays a socially inept biologist who is not quite the girlfriend of the also socially inept Dr. Sheldon Cooper. So Bialik expected questions from the crowd about the show and the actor who plays Sheldon (Jim Parsons). But the only question in that vein came from someone who asked her what the actor Larry David (star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is like in real life.
Bialik, who has appeared on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and in Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water” replied that Larry David is a lot like Woody Allen. But she did reveal to “Big Bang” fans and HHNE students Ariel Gelber and Devorah Pava the relationship with Sheldon will continue – slowly – and that even though Jim Parsons isn’t a scientist, he is very smart.
HHNE President Jeremy Pava noted that Bialik finds the time to study Jewish texts on a weekly basis and is involved in the Jewish community. He said Bialik is a “model of the type of integrated life that the Hebrew High School of New England seeks to promote: Torah combined with worldly pursuits.” The school provides college prep general and Judaic studies in an “inclusive and supportive environment,” according to the mission statement.
Following her talk, Rabbi Yitzchok Adler of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, spoke about the school’s mission and approach toward education. He indicated Bialik’s non-judgmental, inclusive and individualized program reflects the school’s values. And Rabbi Debra Cantor, of Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom on Still Road, said she thought the actor is “brilliant.”
Tributes and Graduation
The evening was also a celebration of the “consistent dedication of the Zachs family and of Barbara Zalesch,” said Head of School Rabbi Daniel Loew. The Zachs family funded the Louise Silverman Zachs Art and Music Center at HHNE. Zalesch, of New Haven, was presented with the President’s Award for outstanding service to the school.
Loren Gelber of Avon and Ann Pava of West Hartford co-chaired the event, which was the single most successful event in the school’s history, said organizers. The event concluded with a dessert reception, raffle (an autographed script of “The Big Bang Theory” went to one lucky winner along with autographed photos of the cast and of Bialik) and a book-signing by Bialik.
This year, 21 students graduated from HHNE at ceremonies at the school, located at 300 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford, on June 17. The charge to the graduates was given by Edlyn Blitzer, HHNE’s assistant principal, who is retiring this summer after 40 years in education. Ann Pava said 100 percent of the 200 students who have graduated from the school thus far have gone on to college and several have taken leadership roles on college campuses throughout the country.